To Swatch or Not to Swatch?
That is big question in knitting, and one often asked of us in store. Sometimes randomly but usually after one of our staff has recommend knitting a swatch to test your gauge for a yarn substitution or after giving advice on altering a pattern. Some of you groan knowingly when we suggest this and some of you look at us a bit confused, unsure what foreign language we might be speaking. This article will help inform you of the reasons to knit a swatch and teach you how to knit one as well as how to modify your tension if it isn’t quite as “perfect” as you had hoped.
Knitting a swatch is one of the most important parts of creating a successful project and a step that is rarely overlooked by experienced knitters. A swatch, or tension square, is a knitted or crocheted sample using the recommended needle or hook size and stitch of a pattern. Creating a swatch is most important for anything where an exact fit is desired, such as garments, hats, mittens, or socks. In addition to being important for the size of your finished project, creating a swatch allows you to test run a new stitch or colour combination.
Knitting a swatch is necessary because no one knits with the exact same tension. To showcase this, in the photo below three staff members from our Sydney store have knit a swatch all from Morris Estate 8ply using the exact same needles with very different results. If these three knitters were to follow the same sweater pattern, they would produce three very different sized garments. Swatching is a worthwhile activity even if you think you have medium, average, or ‘perfect’ tension because the tension used by a pattern designer is not standardised nor are all yarns of the same ply or weight exactly equal.
If you are making a blanket, scarf, or other accessory where the fit is not important you may choose to not spend the time knitting a swatch. However, if I am ever using a new stitch or do care about the finished size of a blanket, I tend to knit at least a miniature swatch and make sure my tension isn’t completely off.
How to Knit a Swatch
To knit a swatch you want to create a 15cm by 15cm square. Most patterns give the recommend tension for 10cm and knitting a couple of extra centimetres allows you to correctly measure your gauge. The easiest way to figure out how many stitches you will need to cast on to reach 15cm is multiplying the pattern’s tension for 10cm by 1.5.
It can be tempting to think you can get away with knitting a smaller swatch than this, and for any project where fit doesn’t matter but you just want to test out a stitch pattern and see if its vaguely close to a pattern’s recommended tension you can, but I urge you to knit the full 15cm for a project where fit is important. A person’s tension can change while they are knitting and creating a full 15cm swatch allows for these natural changes to occur and a will give you a more accurate representation of what your final project will look like.
You will want to follow your pattern’s instructions on which stitch to knit your swatch in. Many times, tension squares will be in stockinette stitch using the largest needles a pattern calls for unless there is a more complicated stitch pattern in the project. Certain stitches will either draw in a knitted fabric or stretch and therefore you’ll want to make sure you are swatching with those stitches in mind.
If you are knitting your tension square in stocking stitch, it’s a good idea to do a border of garter stitch with a few rows at the beginning and end of the swatch and a few garter stitches at the start and end of each row to help keep your piece flat. Next you will knit until your swatch reaches 15cm. The garter border will be taken up by your extra 5cm of your swatch and there is no need to knit any extra to allow for the border. Next you will bind off your swatch in your preferred method or the method used in your pattern.
The goal of a swatch is to replicate as close as possible the exact tension you will have on your finished project. One way to ensure you are achieving the same conditions is to block your swatch exactly as you would your finished item. For more on what blocking is and how to do it please read our previous blog here. The reason you want to block your swatch is that yarns can relax and stretch slightly when wet and then allowed to air dry. A swatch that measures as a half stitch or so too tight per centimetre can suddenly be perfect once blocked.
To measure your swatch once it is dry from blocking, pin It firmly onto an ironing board or to a towel (you may want to pin it out when wet and allow it to dry) so you can measure a 10cm square. Don’t pin it so tightly that the stitches are completely pulled out of shape and the stitch count will be affected. Next take a ruler or tape measure and place it across the swatch horizontally in a straight line. We love the KnitPro View Sizer because it has a little magnified 10cm section as well as being so handy for measuring our needle sizes. Then you want to start counting the stitches across for 10cm. I like to use a small size knitting needle to help me count the stitches and keep track of where I am on my swatch. After counting the horizontal stitches, move your ruler and start counting your rows vertically for 10cm. If you don’t know how to easily count rows, you want to count every ‘V” on stocking stich or every other row or bump in garter stitch.
Hopefully you have counted the exact tension that your pattern calls for and you are happy with the fabric you have produced. However, if your tension isn’t quite right, you can make some adjustments to correct it.
If your swatch has more stitches per 10cm than your pattern calls for then your tension is too tight. You can adjust this by increasing your needle size. This can take a bit of trial and error to know how much to increase by. I would suggest just going up one needle size at first unless your tension is incredibly tight.
If your swatch has less stitches per 10cm than your pattern calls for, your tension is too loose. You can adjust this by going down in needle size. Again, I would just go down one size at first unless your tension is incredibly loose.
If you have the correct stitch count but your row count is slightly off, I suggest keeping the same needle size but changing your knitting needle material to see if that makes a difference. Needles of different materials, such as wood, metal, and carbon fibre, can create different row gauges because you knit with each a bit differently based on how quickly your knitting glides or grips to them.
Alternatively, if you didn’t want to change your knitting material (die-hard metal needle user here) or changing material didn’t correct your row gauge, you could try to adjust the number of rows in your pattern if possible. This is easiest if your pattern gives you a measurement to knit towards in each instruction and is not completely counted out in rows. Unfortunately adjusting colourwork or another charted knitted items this way won’t work out well.
“Speed Swatching” Knitting in the Round
Patterns that are knit in the round recommend swatches to also be knit in the round because knitting this way changes your tension. Often a person’s knit stitch will be a little tighter than their purl stitch and therefore if you knit your perfect swatch flat but then your sweater is in the round it could be a little tighter than you expected. When knitting in the round you don’t need to purl to create stocking stitch because of the way the stitches spiral on top of one another (this is another reason knitting in the round is so popular because purling is often slower than knitting).
Knitting a full swatch in the round can sound like an even longer task than knitting a swatch to begin with but there is a simple trick to speed it up. First cast on enough stitches to create 15cm with your circular knitting needles and knit the first row without joining it in the round. Next you simply push your knitting back, so the start of your row is back up on the left needle and carry a long float across the needles to begin knitting again. If you are unfamiliar with floats, a float is just a loose piece of yarn carried between two stitches, like in stranded colourwork knitting. You continue in this manner, knitting every stitch until your full 15cm swatch is knit, with a long float between the beginning and end of every row. Now you can bind off with your preferred method and then cut your floats. Finally, you will block and pin your swatch and measure your tension as discussed above.
If you don’t like the sound of speed knitting a swatch in the round for a sweater pattern you can instead knit a beanie first using the same yarn and needles and measure your tension on the widest part of the hat. Any hat pattern using the same ply as your sweater will work. Tin Can Knits often offers a beanie pattern that matches their sweaters for this exact purpose. If the hat and sweater are in stranded colourwork this can also be a nice way to test out colour combinations before starting the long-term project of a sweater.
Learning to Love Swatching
I know knitting a swatch can feel like a hurdle that needs to be overcome before you can cast on a new project, but I promise it is a very worthwhile activity. I have learned to really revel in knitting a swatch and use it to mentally prepare for my next project as well as provide the assurance I am looking for that the garment will fit me correctly when I am finished. Sometimes I even allow myself to knit a swatch for a new cast on when I am still finishing another project, as a little treat and to help scratch the itch of starting something new.
Swatches don't have to be wasted knitting either. I will save my swatch and unravel it if I need just a little extra yarn to finish my project but a lot of good patterns will have the swatch included in the yarn quantities so that's not always necessary. Some knitters choose to compile their finished swatches into beautiful throw blankets once they have collected enough over the years, like a lovely little scrapbook of sorts of all their treasured knitted pieces. Pillows, or patchwork sweaters and jackets could also be great uses for re-purposing swatches.
I hope if you previously avoided swatches you have now been convinced to knit one for your next big project, or learned a new trick or two if you are already a devoted swatch knitter. Please share with us in the comments below how you feel about swatching or any questions you may have!